Oddly Enough

Chefs in a stew over "pretentious" cuisine

MADRID (Reuters) - A chef with three Michelin stars has created a schism in Spanish cuisine by labeling avant-garde creations that revolutionized cooking “pretentious.”

A chef prepares a salmon in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant, April 19, 2006. REUTERS/Catherine Benson

Restaurants like El Bulli near Barcelona, the world’s best according to Restaurant Magazine, have dumped traditional kitchen techniques in favor of high-tech creations distilling flavors into foams and gels.

Last week Santi Santamaria, a traditionalist whose restaurant Can Fabes has three stars, ripped into dishes such as El Bulli’s “paper with flowers” which he said were aimed at impressing rather than satisfying diners.

Santamaria called Spanish chefs pretentious and said their use of chemicals could actually put diners’ health at risk.

“How can it be that products that are not recommended for your health are being consumed in many of the country’s most important restaurants?” Santamaria said in a speech.

“They give clients dishes they wouldn’t eat themselves.”

Rival chefs issued a news release on Tuesday accusing Santamaria of jealousy and of endangering the hard-won reputation of Spain’s kitchens.

“To throw away prestige won by our profession due to honest hard work for many years is, at the very least, a violation of the spirit of solidarity and respect,” read the communique by Euro-Toques, an association of 800 Spanish chefs.

“And if on top of that he sows doubts about whether ingredients are unhealthy, he is creating public alarm in a way that could have incalculable consequences,” it said.

The new gels and thickeners were perfectly legal and healthy, the chefs insisted.

Spain’s “Nueva Cocina,” or “New Cooking,” has been emulated around the world, influencing chefs like Heston Blumenthal in England. El Bulli’s chef and owner Ferran Adria has been described as the most influential cook in the world.

Santamaria took special aim at Adria who he has called a showman. “We have ethical differences about the ideas and concepts of what you can put on a plate,” Santamaria said.

Santamaria, who describes himself as a “craftsman chef,” specializes in heartier fare than the creations of Nueva Cocina.

The menu of Can Fabes features dishes such as suckling pig served with lobster and lamb with figs, compared to El Bulli offerings like “Rabbit Ear Crunchy” and “Hare juice with apple jelly-cru with black currant marinated gorgonzola shell.”

Reporting by Jason Webb; Editing by Robert Woodward